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A Thanksgiving Story for the North American Continent: "The Red River Valley"

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Kendall Davis is well-versed in the English language. She has 20 years experience as a published author and writing for clients. Her published works include historical articles in museums, magazines, newspaper articles, columns, content marketing, advertising copy, blogging, and academic papers. Kendall also makes her way in the literary world as a copyeditor. Writing about history is her first love interest. If you have editing or content needs on your website or for your books, articles, blogs, or columns, please visit her website to see details and more examples of her work, the services she offers, and contact information.

When you look back in deep reflection on your life, and think about how this situation or that event changed your life, do you ever wonder if it was coincidence or serendipity? You may begin looking at the details that tell the stories of your life . . .and you might have forgotten this, or embellished that . . .This story is not near as deep as the introduction here might make it sound, but a lot of things do happen that way in the events of many people’s lives.

And, this story developed exactly that way. While looking into the EPA rules for smoke emissions, I called Ron Kotrba, who wrote an in-depth article on that subject, and included his phone number in his article. I call a lot of people. I usually never speak to them again, or there may be a couple of acknowledging emails, but usually that is all there is to it.

In the email from Ron, thanking me for the nice words about him in my article, he  wrote that he lives in North Dakota on one side of the Red River of the North, and his publisher is in Minnesota on the other side of the river. He also wrote that he never knew that there was any rivalry between Texans and Okies. I can only guess that we keep that part of our culture out of the national news and save it for college football and jokes.

I wrote Ron that the beautiful ballad, “The Red River Valley” was originally written about his region’s Red River and that there is a huge rural myth down here on the prairie that the song is about a cowboy and his lady love, and that I’m now writing my next article because of his mention of the Red River of the North. Unknown to at least a few of us, North American geologists and ecoregion-sciency folks historically refer to both rivers as the Red River of the North and the Red River of the South, which has nothing to do with the ballad. There is no doubt that we made that song our own down here on the Red River of the South. But how did this ballad travel so far and wide?

Music historians debate “The Red River Valley” lyrics and origination to this day. The ballad's history reigns in several major regions in North America, with one account from Manitoba in Canada, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Another version includes New England, the next one came from Texas and Oklahoma, and one is even found in an area in Tennessee, about the Little Red River located there.

Music historians will say that what the world today considers as the Country and Western music genre originated in part from ballads in the form of mountain and hillbilly ditties, and African influences mixed into C&W beginning in the 1920s. But where do ballads originate? The British Isles.

Edith Fowke (2), a Canadian and folk music historian, reported that “The Red River Valley” was known in five Canadian provinces before 1896. Edith explained her logic in her historical account why the ballad is attributed to the Canadians from the Red River of the North (1):

“…in 1870 the Manitoba Act created the Province of Manitoba. To underscore its new jurisdiction in the region, the Canadian government sent the Wolseley Expedition to Red River.

It was during this period of Canadian cultural clashing that Edith Fowke postulated that the song “Red River Valley” was first composed. Part of her anecdotal proof as to the origin of the song hinged on the use of the word “adieu” in the lyrics, a word not normally associated with cowboys of the southwestern plains.”

Another version of the ballad’s origin tells us that its theme begins with a war, a man, and a possibly a Canadian Native American woman. An American Indian could have easily fallen in love with an Anglo from the British Isles near what is Manitoba today. In my humble opinion, more than likely the ballad is about a Canadian or British Isles member of the Wolseley Expedition leaving for home after they completed their mission."

“The Red River Valley” became the “Cowboy Love Song,” entitled by Carl T. Sprague on Victor, 20067, 1926 (4). That is when we Okies and Texans claimed “The Red River Valley” as our own. The earliest known written manuscript of the lyrics to “Red River Valley” was found in Iowa bearing the notation of the year 1879 (1). Many artists wrote different lyrics and recorded The Red River Valley over the next 100-plus years, but kept the melody and chorus.

The Red River of the South in Texas and Oklahoma

The Red River of the South, but not in its entirety, flows east and south to the Mississippi River and empties into the Gulf Coast. It runs through these ecoregions of Texas: the piney woods, the post oak savanna, the blackland prairie, the cross timbers and prairies, and the rolling plains; all that, before it even reaches Louisiana.

The Red River of the South runs through these ecoregions in Oklahoma: the south-central plains, the east central Texas plains, the cross timbers, and the central great plains. For about 640 miles, it flows along the Texas and Oklahoma border.

The Red River of the North

The Red River of the North in its entirety is approximately 550 miles long and partially forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. It flows slowly south to north and ends up pouring into Lake Winnepeg in Manitoba Canada. The Red River Valley up north falls between the two U.S. states and contains a lot of silty bottomlands (5). It flows through the glacial Lake Agassiz Basin ecoregion in Minnesota and North Dakota (6).

Edith Fowke has written, “This is probably the best known folk song on the Canadian prairies. Later research indicates that it was known in at least five Canadian Provinces before 1896 and was probably composed during the Red River Rebellion of 1870.” Here are the lyrics discovered by Edith Fowke (1):

The Red River Valley

From this valley they say you are going,
I shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For alas you take with the sunshine
That has brightened my pathway awhile.

Come and sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
But remember the Red River Valley
And the girl who has loved you so true.

For this long, long time I have waited
For the words that you never would say,
But now my last hope has vanished
When they tell me you’re going away.

When you go to your home by the ocean
May you never forget the sweet hours
That we spent in the Red River Valley
Or the vows we exchanged mid the bowers.

Will you think of the valley you’re leaving?
Oh, how lonely and dreary ’twill be!
Will you think of the fond heart you’re breaking
And be true to your promise to me.

The dark maiden’s prayer for her lover
To the spirit that rules o’er the world
His pathway with sunshine may cover
Leave his grief to the Red River girl.

There could never be such a longing
In the heart of a white maiden’s breast
As dwells in the heart you are breaking
With love for the boy who came west.

The lyrics first recorded in 1926 by Carl T. Sprague is the song we love about our Red River of the South (7):

From this valley they say you are going
I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For you know you are takin' the sunshine
That has brightened my pathway a while

So, come and sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true

Won't you think of the valley you're leaving
Oh, how lonely, how sad it will be
Won't you think of the heart you are breaking
And the grief you are causing to me

As you go to your home by the ocean
May you never forget those sweet hours
That we spent in the Red River Valley
And the love we exchanged mid the flowers

I have promised you, darling, that never
Will a word from my lips cause you pain
And my life, it will be yours forever
If you only will love me again

I have waited a long time, my darling
For those words that you never would say
Till at last as my poor heart is breaking
They tell me you're going away

They will bury me where you have wandered
Near the hills where the daffodils grow
When you're gone from the Red River Valley
For I can't live without you I know

Then come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true

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